MnSTEP Teaching Activity Collection > MnSTEP Activities > Tracking the Sun: Observing the Path of the Sun Throughout the Year

Tracking the Sun: Observing the Path of the Sun Throughout the Year

Ellen Gevers
Lincoln Elementary
White Bear Lake, MN
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Over the course of the school year, students will collect data about the sun's position at a specific time of day, resulting in creating an analemma (a figure 8 that shows the path of the sun).Recording should be at least weekly. Students will make predictions about the next position based on patterns they have noticed. Classroom discussion will be directed toward the concepts of earth's tilt and the effect of the sun's rays on the planet: warmth, seasons, amount of daylight per day, etc.

Learning Goals

Students will understand that the sun changes its position in our sky as our seasons progress: high in the sky in summer, lowest in winter. Students will be able to explain how the sun's position (due to earth's tilt) causes the change in seasons (temperatures) that we see at our latitude. Students will record data on a map of their classroom.
Students will gather data and analyze the patterns they see, making predictions for future data. Students will use critical thinking skills to determine how the path of the sun is related to the data they have collected, and how this affects our planet.
Students will use mapping and measuring skills to record the sun's shadow.
Vocabulary words : shadow, axis, planet, analemma, season, equinox, solstice, revolve, rotate

Context for Use

This series of data recording is meant to take place in the classroom, in a room where there is direct sunlight at a specific time, consistently throughout the year. The initial lesson and modeling of data recording will take about 30 minutes, more if you have not done any mapping with students. You also will want to start this project as soon as possible in the school year so students can see the full extent of the sun's movement. Each following recording should take only a few minutes, but discussion, predicting and journaling could take 10 minutes or more depending on the content of the discussion. The final recording should allow at least 30 minutes for deeper discussion and reflection on the concepts learned. Materials required: colored sticky dots (one per recording), student grids to use for mapping classroom floor, overhead with grid for teacher modeling of mapping, student notebooks.

Subject: Geoscience:Lunar and Planetary Science
Resource Type: Activities:Classroom Activity
Grade Level: Intermediate (3-5)
Theme: Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Planetary Science

Description and Teaching Materials

Before starting this lesson the teacher should make a paper arrow about 8 inches tall and attach it to a classroom window where the sun will cast a shadow of the arrow at a certain time each day. You may need to make observations about this prior to attaching the arrow so you can consider where it will cast a shadow on your classroom floor throughout the year.
To introduce this activity ask students what they have observed about the movement of the sun in the sky. Consider daily as well as seasonal changes they may have noticed. Have they had the sun shine in their eyes while at their desk? When was that? Was it every day? At the same time? Explain that during the year you will be recording data so you can think about the position of the sun and how it affects us. You will check the sun's position and mark where the tip of the arrow's shadow falls on the classroom floor with a sticky dot. Then students will mark the same spot on our classroom map with an X .(The teacher will need to do some measuring to keep this accurate, and show where to mark the placement on the transparency map) Students will keep the classroom map in their science notebook and use it all year. Remember to put the date next to each mark made on the map. Each time students mark the shadow, they will also be asked to make a prediction for the next measurement. The prediction can be marked with a P on the map.
In following lessons , mark the position of the shadow on the floor with a dot, measure and mark on student maps, make a prediction, then when several data points have been marked, discuss why students think they shadow has changed position, how is the temperature different (in general), what is happening outside (seasonal changes), and have students write about observations in their notebooks. Aslo during the course of the year be sure to discuss the concepts of revolution, rotation, seasons, planet tilt, direct versus indirect light and its effect on the earth. You can also discuss the equinox and solstice days, as markers of the special days each year when we have equal day and night, and when we have the longest/shortest days.

Teaching Notes and Tips

When students are marking their maps make sure they are aligned correctly. An initial discussion of directions and marking north on the maps is helpful for discussion purposes also. The dots on the floor will probably not last, that is why you are making a map. If you can make some type of mark that can stay on your floor it will make a bigger impression on the students as they make continuous recordings. Students may be surprised that the sun's shadow makes a figure 8, not just a line that gets longer and shorter. This is due to the planet's tilt and position as we revolve around the sun.
Students often think summer is warmer because we are closer to the sun. In reality, we are further from the sun at the northern latitudes during summer. (Though the difference in distance is slight.) It is the directness of light because of our tilt toward the sun that warms our earth.

When we change our clocks due to Daylight Savings Time, there will be a corresponding change in the location of the sunspot. If you can take your data an hour earlier you will continue your pattern. Otherwise, you will need to discuss why there is such a big change in the sun's position after the time changes.


Collect student maps at the end of the year(or more frequently if you wish) and assess for accuracy indrawing the data points. If you had students mark predictions and not erase them you can assess whether they improved in predicting as they year went on. (This is also good for discussion; Did you make better predictions? Why?) As a culminating assessment you could have students write a few sentences to explain how the light from the sun changes during the year and how it affects our part of the earth. You could also assess their writing in the notebooks for understanding.


Grade 3 Strand III: the universe Benchmark 3 The Student will observe that the sun supplies heat and light to the earth.

References and Resources

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